With just over a week to go to the first race in Australia, it’s a good time to reflect on what’s happened in testing and what to look out for in the first few races of the season
The Teams – who will be quick?
The results of pre-season testing are always difficult to interpret, as it is never clear what the teams are trying to achieve. Varying fuel loads in particular can make the order misleading.
In Barcelona, at a circuit that is considered a good all-round test of a car’s characteristics due to its mix of corners and very long straight, the fastest time was set by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes W04. In fact, the Mercedes looked competitive throughout the two Barcelona tests, after struggling with reliability issues early in the Jerez test.
However, Mercedes were not competitive in the latter part of 2012, which suggests that their position at the top of the order may be slightly false. Lewis Hamilton in particular is playing down the team’s chances of challenging for victories in 2013, frequently telling the press that he feels no pressure to deliver results in his first season as a works Silver Arrows driver.
It’s extremely tough to predict an order amongst the teams, except to point out that Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus all look competitive as expected, and with Mercedes should feature at the sharp end of the grid. That being said, Sauber are looking in reasonable shape as are Force India and Williams. Toro Rosso are the team that seems to have lost ground over the winter, but that will have to wait for the racing to begin to be confirmed.
The general consensus in the paddock seems to be that Red Bull and McLaren will lead the way initially, but Ferrari and Lotus are making optimistic noises in the press about their chances, which suggests that they have reason to be confident.
At the back of the field, Caterham do not seem to have made up much ground on the rest of the pack, and are likely to struggle for points again this season, depending on how aggressively they can develop their new car. Marussia have done nothing to suggest that they will not be at the back of the field when racing begins next week, but their development programme in 2012 was solid which suggests that they could be a team to watch for progress in the latter part of the season.
When Pirelli entered Formula One in 2011, they were tasked with increasing the number of pitstops and improving overtaking opportunities. They responded to the challenge magnificently, and the tyres they have produced, together with other technical changes in the sport, have contributed to two seasons of action-packed races.
For 2013, Pirelli have made changes to the construction of their tyres to ease warm-up issues, which had plagued some teams in 2011 and 2012. They have also softened all of the tyre compounds to increase degradation and improve performance across the entire range.
While the teams have had 12 days of pre-season testing using the new tyres, they will not have been able to collect much data about the behaviour of the tyres on their 2013 cars, as temperatures in Jerez and Barcelona for the tests were well below the levels expected for the Grands Prix. All of the teams suffered from tyre graining issues, particularly with the harder compounds which did react well to the cold.
As in 2012, the early part of the season should see drivers making frequent pitstops, and any teams that can use the tyres gently enough to make fewer stops than the competition should find themselves at a significant advantage. As the season goes on, however, tyres are likely to play less of a major role in determining the race results.
While the usual suspects – Vettel, Alonso, Button, Raikkonen – will likely feature at the front of the grid as last year, there are a few drivers with a point to prove in 2013, whether or not they are prepared to admit it to the press.
Mark Webber has been the slower driver in the championship-winning car for the past three seasons, which is a situation he will want to remedy. He clearly does not appreciate being outpaced by Vettel, and relishes his occasional triumphs over his more successful team-mate. Webber knows only one way to compete – all-out commitment – and that is how he can be expected to start the season. If he can establish himself early as a title contender, this could well be Webber’s year to taste success.
Felipe Massa is fortunate to be at Ferrari, after an appalling 2011 season and miserable first half of 2012. That he is still racing in red is partly due to Ferrari’s emphasis on running the team more as a family that protects its own than a cut-throat business, and partly due to some inspired performances in the second half of last season. Massa’s extended contract runs out at the end of 2013, and he will be acutely aware that he is racing for his seat and has all but run out of chances at Ferrari. He has to win races to stay at Ferrari, and the sooner he does so the better for his career.
Sergio Perez has filled a large gap – that left by Lewis Hamilton at McLaren – and considering that Ferrari were not prepared to sign him due to his relative lack of experience, he will feel the need to justify McLaren’s faith in him at this early stage of his career. He is quick, that much is clear, and his driving style is silky smooth much like that of his new team-mate Jenson Button. Whether or not he can use his talents to deliver success quickly in his new team remains to be seen.
Lewis Hamilton has had to fill the largest shoes of all – those of Michael Schumacher – at Mercedes. Although Schumacher was not at his best during his three-year return, there is something of a “Schumacher couldn’t do it. Who can?” feeling about Mercedes. Hamilton has been very keen to downplay any expectations over the winter, constantly telling the press that wins are probably out of reach. But behind that cautious exterior, he knows that he is possibly the quickest driver in the field, and he is an aggressive racer who wants nothing but victory. Hamilton could very well surprise everyone with a strong championship challenge.
And then are the bad boys: Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean. Both are fast and entertaining, but a bit rough around the edges. There is no doubt about their talent – each has a GP2 championship to his name and Maldonado won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix – but they have a history of causing collisions and making unnecessary mistakes. If these two can clean up their driving for 2013, this should be an action-packed season with some daring overtaking.
And, finally, there are the new drivers: Estaban Gutierrez at Sauber, Veltteri Bottas at Williams, Giedo van der Garde at Caterham and the all-new Marussia line-up of Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi. Each of them will want to make enough of an impression to, firstly, see out the season and, secondly, stay in Formula One past the end of 2013. The one driver who is not new, but rather returning, is Adrian Sutil, who has already shown in testing that he has lost none of his speed, but will want to show that he can match or beat team-mate Paul di Resta at Force India.
Oddly, in 2013 there are no new circuits on the Formula One calendar. There was meant to be one – a street circuit in New Jersey which would have hosted the second US race on the calendar – but the event was cancelled as the facility was unlikely to be completed in time for the race.
For the teams, the lack of new circuits is important, as it means they have knowledge of every race venue on the calendar. For each of the past few seasons, there has been at least one new location for Grand Prix racing, which has meant the teams and drivers have had to work doubly hard in order to understand how their cars work on a new track surface in various conditions. This year, they do not have that problem, and can carry out extensive preparatory setup work in their simulators before arriving at the races and fine-tuning the cars for racing.
The first four Grands Prix are “fly-away” races. In other words, the venues are not accessible by road, which means the multitude of trucks that normally accompany a Formula One team have to be left behind, and the teams rely on a reduced amount of freight that is sent to the venues by air and sea.
The normal result of this arrangement is that the teams run cars that are largely unchanged from the first to fourth race, as they do not have all of the equipment they would need to implement major modifications. The first major upgrades of the season typically appear on the cars when the European season starts in Spain.
The limitations of the schedule in terms of early-season upgrades mean that it is of paramount importance to the teams that they start the season in good shape, as they can otherwise be substantially on the back foot after four poor races, particularly if one team brings a particularly strong package to the first four rounds of the season. A good example is the success of the Brawn team in 2009, where they started the season with a vastly superior car and dominated the early races, and although the other teams caught up by the end of the year, the early results were enough to secure both titles for Brawn. While that sort of dominance is unlikely due to the stability of the technical regulations, it is still important to start the season well, particularly as the title can come down to a difference of only a few points as it has done so often in recent years.